On a day when the stock market plummeted 508 points more amid fears of a serious recession, the second presidential debate Tuesday night didn't match the drama of the nation's ongoing economic meltdown. Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama were pointed but generally polite as they spent 90 minutes jousting in a town-hall format. Neither scored a decisive victory nor made a major mistake as the two quarreled over who has the best prescription to lift the nation out of its financial mess.
But for McCain, trailing in the polls with Election Day less than a month away, the debate seemed to be a disappointment because he was unable to generate a game-changing moment to slow Obama's momentum. Instead, a flash survey of debate watchers by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. found that 54 percent said Obama did the best job in the debate and 30 percent favored McCain. About 54 percent said Obama seemed to be the stronger leader, and 43 percent named McCain.
Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, was confident and relaxed. McCain, who has been a senator from Arizona for more than two decades, was similarly self-assured but more animated and aggressive.
And while each man avoided the extreme negativity that has dipped the overall campaign into the mud recently, the debate offered only a brief respite from the cycle of attack and counterattack. Immediately afterward, each side resumed the name-calling.
Even though both of them voted last week for the much-ballyhooed multibillion-dollar "rescue" plan, McCain and Obama differed strongly on what to do next, with each repeating his well-worn campaign lines. Obama said he favored a tax cut for the middle class, higher taxes on the rich and big corporations, healthcare reform, and taking more steps toward energy independence. McCain opposed tax hikes, favored more of a market approach to healthcare overhaul, and also endorsed an aggressive approach to achieving energy independence.
Obama has benefited from public perceptions that McCain would follow the unpopular economic policies of fellow Republican President George W. Bush. But McCain tried to set forth what he billed as a new economic initiative by pledging, if elected, to order the treasury secretary to carry out a $300 billion program to protect homeowners from foreclosure by buying "bad home loan mortgages" and renegotiating them at a lower, more realistic value so people could afford the payments and stay in their homes. McCain didn't provide details, including how he would pay for the idea. And Obama aides said their candidate had already called for such a program to at least be studied.
Addressing the economy, McCain called Obama a "tax and spend" liberal who would make the economy worse, and he questioned Obama's readiness to lead: "We don't have time for on-the-job training, my friend." McCain added, "Nailing down Senator Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. There has been five or six of them, and if you wait long enough, there will probably be another one."
Obama tried to connect McCain to what he called the failed policies of the Bush administration and the current financial crisis. "This is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain," Obama argued.
At one point, McCain said he believes in Theodore Roosevelt's dictum to "speak softly but carry a big stick," while he called Obama's rhetoric overblown and unwise. But Obama countered: "Now Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and I'm just spouting off, and he's somber and responsible," as McCain laughed and said, "Thank you very much."
But then Obama suggested that his rival could be rash and macho. "This is a guy who sang bomb, bomb, bomb Iran, who called for the annihilation of North Korea--that I don't think is an example of speaking softly," Obama said.
The format didn't allow for extended give-and-take between the candidates, who roamed the stage, walked up to questioners in the audience, and alternately talked to the moderator, audience members, and the cameras--but rarely to each other. As they left their stools and wandered the platform, the TV camera operators had trouble keeping up with them, and the candidates often were shown speaking with their backs to the viewers.
The muted tone of the night was a marked contrast to the increasingly negative approach the candidates are taking in their campaign speeches and in their TV ads. But neither wanted to seem overbearing or nasty in the debate, when it was unclear who would benefit from going negative. So they were cautious and largely on their best behavior. Neither mentioned the hottest charges to have arisen in the past few days--the McCain campaign's attempts to link Obama with former antiwar radical William Ayers, who plotted violent acts 40 years ago, and the Obama campaign's attempts to link McCain to a savings and loan scandal from the 1980s.
At one point, however, McCain let his pique show when he referred to Obama as "that one" and gestured to his rival as he asked if the audience knew who voted for an energy bill "loaded down with goodies" for special interests. Some Obama supporters said McCain was being condescending.
As they did in their first debate, both candidates said they would bring fundamental change to Washington. And it's clear that change is a big issue on voters' minds. The latest Gallup Poll found that only 9 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, the lowest number ever recorded in the three decades since the question was first asked. Nearly 70 percent of voters say the economy is the top issue.
The discussion was held in Nashville and moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw. The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for next week.